The Life of Mahavira
Mahavira ("great hero") was born Vardhamana in
Kundapura (Bihar state, North India) around 562 BC. There are many legends
concerning his life - even his year of birth is disputed - and the story of his life has similarities to the founder of Budhism. He
is considered to be the final and greatest of 24 Tirthankaras, founders of Jainism.
He was born into a royal family being the son of a local king called Siddartha. He married a princess,
Yasoda, and had a daughter, Anojja. Both his parents died when he was 28
and two years later he renounced his throne, family and wealth and became an ascetic. He pulled out his hair and threw away his clothes, vowing to
not interfere in anything that befell him.
Mahavira decided to follow a fivefold discipline:
- Never living in the house of an unfriendly person;
- Standing with the body like a statue;
- Generally maintaining silence;
- Eating out of his hand as a dish;
- Not showing politeness to householders.
He meditated and endured austerity and deprivation. He meditated or walked in the sun during the summer, and meditated outside naked in the winter.
When walking he kept his eyes on the ground to avoid stepping on any insect. He lived by himself rather than with others. The only food he ate was
what he obtained by begging. He regularly fasted, sometimes for a month.
For six years he travelled with another ascetic, Gosala. They were often insulted, beaten up and even imprisoned
In later life Mahavira founded an order of monks and nuns. Adherents had to agree to nonviolence, truthfulness,
non-stealing, non-possession and chastity.
At the age of 72, Mahavira fasted to death (salekhana).
There are 4 million Jains, mostly in Gujarat state in India.
Unlike the contemporary Buddhism, Jainism did not spread to neighbouring countries.
The Teachings of Jainism
There are five disciplines to be followed by strict Jains:
- Ahimsa - this means non violence. Not injuring any living thing in any way. Pious Jains walk very carefully
so as not to injure even the smallest insect. Thoughts and intentions that might lead to quarrels or injury are to be avoided. Even speech should
avoid violence. Food and water must not conain animals. Jains are strict vegetarians and some will not even eat plants that have to
be killed for food.
- Satya - not speaking any lies, causeing any lies to be spoken nor consenting to lies being spoken. A good Jain should deliberate
before speaking, renounces anger, greed, fear, and mirth and ensure that no untruths are spoken. Speech must be pleasant and not painful or insulting in
any way. Silence is a good thing.
- Asteya - not stealing, Nothing must be taken that is not freely given. Even begging is done to strict rules. Food is
consumed only after permission is given. Space is used for sitting only if permitted.
- Brahma-charya - chastity - the renunciation of all sensual pleasures. Jain monks do not discuss the opposite sex or racall previous pleasures.
nor recall previously enjoyed pleasures. They should not even occupy a bed used by anyone desireable or an animal. Food and drink should only be
taken in moderation and without too much spice. Alcohol is avoided. People who are married should be monogamous.
- Aparigraha - all attachments must be renounced, even the enjoyment of pleasant sounds, sights, places, tastes, people or
pleasures. One group (Digambaras) renounce even the wearing of clothes.
The symbol of ahisma (non-violence)
Jainism has its own cosmology. The universe exists as a series of layers, both heavens and hells (seven of the latter). It had no
beginning or end. It is an eternal universe governed by natural laws with no ultimate deity or creator. People are endlessly reincarnated unless
their achive nirvana by ascetisism. All souls are equal and are capable of reaching nirvana.
Compassion for all life, both human and non-human, is the central idea of Jainism. Human life is especially valued and all killing,
even by execution for crimes, is considered abhorrent. Its vegetarianism has influenced other religions in India
(Buddhism, Hinduism). Gujarati food has been most influenced, not only being vegetarian but also
lightly spiced. The Jains are normally very tolerant of other religions even administering
temples for other faiths. In the 20th century, Jain ideas of non-violence influenced Mahatma
Ghandi's non-violent fight for independence.
Jain temples are usually very elaborate. The Tirthankas are usually displayed as 24 identical sculptures with a
small identifying mark at the bottom. Mahavira's is a lion. One of the holiest symbols of Jainism is the
fylfot (also known as the swastika).
The fylfot (swastika)
is one of the holiest
of Jain symbols.
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KryssTal Related Pages
Inventions from the period that includes Indian culture at the time of Mahavira.
These are words found in English from Sanskrit.
A summary of the world's religions.
External Mahavira / Jainism Links
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Biography of Mahavira.
A summary of Jainism.